Shortly after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, disinterred the bodies of 257 dead Union prisoners of war, whom Confederates buried in a mass grave. Over two weeks, the men gave the POWs proper burials and created a small cemetery at Hampton Park Race Course, which had served as a prison camp in the war. The former slaves erected an arch, inscribing it "Martyrs of the Race Course." On May 1, 1865, more than 10,000 people -- most of them freed slaves -- gathered to pay homage to these soldiers in a May Day tribute. This was the first Memorial Day.
The second would take place the next year in Waterloo, New York. It would be the celebration that Congress recognizes as the first, but it would not lead to the federal holiday. For that you needed a union general who became a national politician, John Alexander Logan.
Born near Murphysboro, Illinois, on February 9, 1826, John Logan served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War with the 1st Illinois Infantry Regiment. He entered politics after the war as an acolyte of Democrat Stephen Douglas. Voters elected Logan as county clerk in 1849, then the state legislature, the as prosecuting attorney, and finally to Congress in 1858 and 1860.
However, the election of Douglas's rival, Lincoln, and the South's secession would quickly switch Congressman Logan's party allegiance to Republican, where eventually in 1884 he would be the party's vice presidential nominee. He volunteered for the war and fought at the First Battle of Bull Run. Leaving Congress, he organized and led the 31st Illinois Volunteers as a colonel. This effort greatly pleased General Grant, who had lived in Gallatin, Illinois.
“Logan went to his part of the State and gave his attention to raising troops. The very men who at first made it necessary to guard the roads in southern Illinois became the defenders of the Union. Logan entered the service himself as colonel of a regiment and rapidly rose to the rank of major-general. His district, which had promised at first to give much trouble to the government, filled every call made upon it for troops, without resorting to the draft. There was no call made when there were not more volunteers than were asked for. That congressional district stands credited at the War Department today with furnishing more men for the army than it was called on to supply,” Grant wrote in 1861.
Now Colonel Logan, his unit joined the force of General Grant fighting in the Western theater of the war. While a few modern scholars dismiss him as a political general, Confederates shot his horse under him at the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, on November 7, 1861. Logan led the Union troops who entered Vicksburg, Vicksburg. He succeeded William Tecumseh Sherman in command of the XV Corps. If Logan were just a political general, it was news to his commander, General Grant.
But Logan returned to politics during the war, returning home to campaign for Lincoln in 1864.
Of course, after the war, with a return to Congress, this time as a stalwart Republican. His highest political office was ass the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic from 1868 to 1871. The GAR was a powerful organization of Union Civil War veterans, which grew to 490,000 members by 1890. It promoted suffrage (voting rights) for African-Americans and integrated its units.
On May 5, 1868, GAR Commander Logan issued Order No. 11, declaring May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day, which we now call Memorial Day. He chose the date because it was not associated with any particular date of a battle in the Civil War. It fell on a Saturday that year, which at the time was still a workday or half-work day for most Americans. Services were held at 183 cemeteries in 27 of the 37 states in the Union at the time. In 1871, Michigan became the first state to recognize the holiday. In 1968, Congress made Memorial Day one of the Monday holidays so people could enjoy a three-day weekend as unlike Christmas or the Fourth of July, its exact date had no real tie to the holiday.
When he first learned about Logan, a Democratic congressman who had opposed abolition, Grant had his doubts. In Grant's memoir, he wrote that the only reason he allowed Logan to give a speech to his troops was that Democratic Congressman John A. McClernand trusted him.
“I had some doubt as to the effect a speech from Logan might have; but as he was with McClernand, whose sentiments on the all-absorbing questions of the day were well known, I gave my consent. McClernand spoke first; and Logan followed in a speech which he has hardly equaled since for force and eloquence. It breathed a loyalty and devotion to the Union which inspired my men to such a point that they would have volunteered to remain in the army as long as an enemy of the country continued to bear arms against it. They entered the United States service almost to a man,” Grant wrote.
Logan aftre the war would go on to write two books, "The Great Conspiracy: Its Origin and History," which explained how slaveholders hoodwinked him and other Douglas Democrats, and "The Volunteer Soldier of America," with his son John A.Logan Jr., who later died in the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, for which he received the Medal of Honor posthumously.
In 1884, James Blaine picked Logan as his running mate in his ill-fated presidential race against Grover Cleveland. Logan died on December 24, 1886. If you wish to visit his grave this Memorial Day, it is at the United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery in Washington.
My collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.